Straight allies are voices, advocates of LGBT community

by YEVGENIYA KOPELEVA

“Allies are those who are willing to be vocal and advocate for equal opportunities,” said Whit Hollis, director of the Olpin Student Union, in a short video presented at the beginning of “The Straight Ally: Putting the A in LGBTQ” panel at the University of Utah on Oct. 17, 2007.

In support of the LGBT Resource Center’s Pride Week 2007, U students and faculty filled more than 50 desks in a classroom at the Union building to listen, learn and ask questions about what it means to be an ally of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer community. “You have the choice to help everyone, but you don’t have the time or resources to save the world so you choose your passion,” said Esther Kim, a panelist and student at the U.

A straight ally is someone who accepts, supports and respects members of the LGBTQ community. An ally also can be someone who is an activist for equality, fairness and justice.

“As a student of color, I have always felt comfortable making connections with a minority group and my experience has been that I am the voice and advocate for the LGBTQ community,” Kim said.

While Kim appreciates the ally to be acknowledged as part of LGBTQ, panelist Matt Basso, a professor of gender studies, feels uncomfortable because it’s “normalizing” something. “It is a reminder for ‘normal’ individuals to remember to be activists, but the ally tag should remind me to not walk in life easily,” Basso said.

Allies can be some of the most effective and powerful voices for the LGBTQ community. Not only can they assist in the coming-out process, but they can also inform others about the importance of mutual respect and acceptance. “Allies are people who take the time to consider how other people affect them and their identities, and work towards a better understanding of people who might be different than themselves,” said Bonnie Owens, staff intern for the LGBT Resource Center.

When it comes to creating awareness of LGBTQ issues, Octavio Villalpando, a panelist and the associate vice president for the Office of Diversity, believes one of the failures in the education system is not exposing students to inequality and issues of diversity. “Students going to school for 12 years and still not knowing about LGBTQ issues until college is a problem,” he said.

Kari Ellingson, associate vice president for student development, shared a personal story with the audience. While driving her son and his friend to West High School, Ellingson overheard her son’s friend say “that’s gay.” When she pulled the car over and asked what the phrase meant to him, he was speechless and didn’t realize how his words had impacted someone else. “It’s for us parents to take action and advocate our children on issues they may not face or hear about in high school,” Ellingson said.

Panelist Becky McKean, who works as an administrative assistant for the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs, believes everyone needs access to education without barriers. “I am LDS and when I accepted my current job, I was honest and asked permission to ask questions about the people I would be working with,” she said. “I discovered how many things I take for granted. For example, I rarely have to question being accepted or go to a place where I feel unsafe.” As an ally, she supports the idea of allowing individuals to be who they are and encourages people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes before making assumptions.

Although Pride Week is a step toward celebration and forming conversations, “there never is only one issue and if you open up conversations, you will get new ideas from everyone,” McKean said. Ellingson admits that there still are battles to fight, but she also recognized the LGBT Resource Center for doing a great job at reaching out to students, faculty and the community.

Basso believes it’s about finding common ground and knowing that you can somehow relate to everyone you encounter without having any expectations. “At universities, it is easier to be an ally and have those discussions, but we need to create more dialogue and awareness,” Basso said.

Owens says allies are a growing part of the community and represent new theoretical terrain for the fields of gender and sexuality. “I thought it was important to host the straight ally panel because it shows dedication and commitment to our ally community on campus and it reaffirms our relationship to academics and the growing awareness of our communities and identities,” Owens said.